January/February 2002 By Nat Hentoff
Cecil Taylor: "It's about magic, and capturing spirits."
I've known Cecil Taylor since he was 19 and I was 27. We met at a record store that was built into a side of Symphony Hall in Boston. He was studying at the New England Conservatory of Music. We'd go to classical music concerts-all of music was of intense interest to him. Then, as since, he had definite, contrarian, fierce opinions.
Early on, in jazz, he had been drawn to what he called "the beacons-lights indicating a certain direction." He cited Ellington, Lunceford, Chick Webb, Fats Waller-"A giant piano player. He could push a group to no end. When he played the piano, it sang."
But when Cecil tried to become part of the New York jazz scene, many renowned musicians didn't hear any melody or sense. At one session, when Cecil sat in, Jo Jones exploded in revulsion and threw his top cymbal across the room. When Cecil got a Monday night gig at Birdland, Miles Davis, in the audience, listened, cursed and walked out.
There was a period when gigs were so scarce that Cecil survived by working as a cook, dishwasher, deliveryman for a coffee shop and record salesman. I saw him on the street one day, and he said he hadn't played before an audience in six months. But every night in his room, he told me, he played a full, imaginary concert before an audience in his head.
"I have to make that imaginative leap," he said. "I have to believe I'm communicating to somebody. I have to keep the contact going."
But when he found actual audiences, he sometimes electrified them. I first became aware of the impact my thorny friend could have at the Great South Bay Festival in 1958. At the center of the event was a reunion of the Fletcher Henderson band, and many of what were then called traditionalists were in the audience.
Whitney Balliett described what happened when Cecil came on: "[Part of the audience] fidgeted, whispered and wandered nervously in and out of the tent, as if the ground beneath had suddenly become unbearably hot."
But there were also listeners who first appeared mesmerized, and when the set was over, they ran, as if on fire, to reach Cecil and find out where they could buy his recordings.
Years later, toward the end of his presidency, Jimmy Carter held a jazz festival on a lawn of the White House. It wasn't one of those "star" performances at a state dinner, or the kind of honors ceremony at which Richard Nixon had the chutzpah to play a two-piano duet with the ever-gracious Duke Ellington.
Carter was a jazz fan. In his introduction, he told of how he had, before becoming an eminence, frequented jazz clubs, and he said something no other president had said before: jazz did not have the stature it deserved in its native land because of the racism here.
George Wein had orchestrated an intriguing sequence of performers-from Eubie Blake to Max Roach and Dizzy Gillespie. At the end, Dizzy cajoled the president to sing the "Salt Peanuts" refrain as he and Max accompanied the chief executive on that bop anthem.
A number of cabinet members were in the front seats throughout the concert. One of them, listening impassively, was Attorney General Griffin Bell, in private life a powerful Atlanta attorney, who for years since has been a partner in one of the most successful law firms in the country, and a sometime presidential adviser.
When Cecil started his set, Bell leaned forward and became immobile, fixing his attention on the kinetic pianist. When Cecil hit the last thunderous notes, he made one of his high-speed exits, rushing into the shrubbery. The Attorney General leapt off his seat and chased Cecil until he cornered him.
Later, I asked Cecil, "What the hell did he want?"
"He wanted," Cecil said matter-of-factly, "to know where he could get some of my records."
Throughout his life in jazz, Cecil continues to spellbind or infuriate listeners. As I recalled in Jazz Is, "After a Cecil Taylor concert in California at which 3,000 people gave him standing ovations several times during the course of the performance, the distinguished [late] Los Angeles critic Leonard Feather declared that 'anyone working with a jackhammer could have achieved the same results.'"
When I listen to Cecil, I do what one of his sidemen once advised: "You got to really open up to what Cecil's doing." I don't analyze. I get charged. One of his earlier sidemen, the remarkable bassist Buell Neidelinger, said to me recently: "After you've played with Cecil, how can you ever get that energy again?"
In the new, fifth edition, of the Penguin Guide to Jazz, Richard Cook and Brian Morton say of Cecil: "Throughout his career, both on and off the record, there has been no suspicion of any compromise at any point."
Long ago, Cecil said, "Part of what this music is about is not to be delineated exactly. It's about magic and capturing spirits."
He still gets, he tells me, his "most wonderful gigs" in Europe, and his best recordings, though he doesn't listen to what he's done, are on the German label FMP Records.
What keeps him going?
"I put my tragic energy into work."
Originally published in January/February 2002